What can be more terrifying to a small child than to be removed from home and placed with people — as well-meaning as they are — with whom the child is unfamiliar? When the Department of Children and Families confronts a decision about whether to remove a child from his or her parents, staff work closely with the extended family and other “natural supports” to see if the child can be safely maintained at home or, if not, whether a safe alternative exists to the trauma of placing the child with strangers in a traditional foster home.
For this reason, when we consider a removal, the first thing we do is hold a meeting, called a “considered removal child and family team meeting,” to assess first whether the child can be kept safely at home with the right help from family and the department. If no such plan can be arranged, then the goal is to determine whether there is a person in the circle of supports at the meeting who can safely and appropriately care for the child.
The meetings, 80 percent of which occur prior to removal, are highly effective in keeping about half of the children out of care entirely, and of those who must enter care, about half are placed with a relative or someone close to the family but not biologically related. We call this kinship care. These kin are very capable of stepping up to care for children — whether the adult is the grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle or other relative; sometimes it’s a neighbor, coach, friend or other “fictive” (non-relative) kin who comes forward to envelop the child in the network of people who know and love him or her. We call this true kinship care.
Our families, however, can also be complex. Often, they include people who have faced and overcome their own challenges, including involvement in the criminal justice or child protection systems.
This is particularly true because of the racial injustices that spawn over-representation of persons of color in both systems. This persistent fact of racial injustice means that many of our families, if automatically rejected by the department as a placement resource, would only have the injustice further perpetuated and, worse still, have the unfairness further hurt the children then deprived of family entirely as a result.
In order to promote kinship placements, the department has instituted — as have many other jurisdictions — a waiver process to allow people with such histories to still care for family members under the right circumstances. The process begins with work in the area offices by social workers, supervisors and administrators who assess whether a child- protection or criminal history remains a reason to bar use of the family or kin as a resource for the child. The decision then rises from the regional administrator to me as commissioner.
It should be noted too that a prior child protection history-– in particular those that are many years old -– can be for neglecting a child in some manner, as abuse comprises less than 10 percent of maltreatment findings in Connecticut. Further, if the findings are old -– as are many of those in families to whom we grant a waiver-– then they took place when there was no opportunity to appeal the finding. An analysis of appeals from 2005 to 2013 showed that at least 29 percent of appeals ended in a reversal, and in one year the reversal rate was 54 percent.
It is no secret that prior administrations substantiated child abuse and neglect and removed children far, far more frequently. In 2000, we had more than 27,000 open cases and 10,796 children in care – more than double the number of children in care today. The waiver process allows us to revisit some of those cases, right some of those wrongs and assess people as they are today — not freeze them in a time before they got substance abuse and/or mental health treatment, benefited from domestic violence and/or anger management therapy, gained employment, let a Higher Power into their lives, and embraced family support.
After nearly 40 years of experience as a public defender and then Chief of Legal Services for the public defender system, law professor at all three of the state’s law schools, and judge, including more than 18 years as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court, I feel equipped to be the final decision point following the requisite steps outlined above.
In addition, we do not leave the kinship families on their own. The department has instituted services – called “caregiver support teams” – to provide added help to relative and kinship families because of the realization that these families need special assistance. We also have used national experts to raise awareness internally about why relative foster homes frequently require greater support and assistance than other traditional foster homes. So rather than turn away from our families out of an excess of caution, we understand that everything we do has risks and that our job is to acknowledge the situation, assess the needs, and support the families.
Notably, despite challenges, the outcomes for children in kinship families who have received waivers are actually better than for all children in care living with families. Specifically, as our internal study conducted over a few years reflects, children in homes with waivers were (1) less likely to suffer maltreatment, (2) more likely to benefit from a timely re-unification, adoption or transfer of guardianship, (3) more likely to be placed together with siblings, (4) more likely to receive parental visits, and (5) more likely to receive timely multi-disciplinary exams.
When we place a child in a home – whether it be a kinship home or a traditional foster home – we have a big responsibility to decide wisely. National literature strongly supports kinship placement, but when families “have history” the benefits of continuity with family and other relationships are weighed against challenges facing the family members and the resulting risks.
The decision is made with great care. I recognize that at first blush those who do not live in the shoes of our families may be taken aback. I further acknowledge that those who do not personally know our families, their histories and the stories of their redemption, as do DCF staff, may be hesitant — if not outright disinclined.
But my job and the job of my staff are to spend less time judging and more time assessing, because I am confident that once well researched, reasoned and documented, these decisions are made ultimately in support of our children.
Joette Katz is Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.